Friday, 30 November 2007

Chickening Out

The attempt to discredit organic production and deny poultry breeders the right to vaccinate against bird flu may have deeper implications.
In America, a website called The Center for Global Food Issues, a project of the conservative think-tank the Hudson Institute, unashamedly promotes biotech in agriculture and tries hard to debunk organic production. "When will the world realize that Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund are trying to roll back modern civilization ...?" it asks.
Now it is saying:
"Let's give up on that "free-range" label and keep ourselves and birds protected from the avian flu. Keep them indoors."
Warmwell has already received a worried email from a reader in America asking about the validity of such CGFI claims as
".. indoor birds are more comfortable than their free-range cousins because they're protected from hot sun and fierce winter. ...indoor birds are unlikely to get or spread the flu to each other, or to us".
It will be remembered that the government's chief scientist and biotech advocate, Sir David King, has always led the charge to blame wild birds for H5N1. From the start of the bird flu scare at Holton in February he blamed wild birds as the source of the infection. Last year he declared that bird flu could mean the end of free-range and organic chicken and turkey farming (link).

As Magnus Linklater wrote,
"What is disturbing about so many of the statements coming out of Defra about the need to bring free-range flocks indoors, to end organic farming, to "monitor" but never to introduce vaccination - is that they are made by people with little first-hand knowledge of the one science they should be on top of: virology."
In April 2006 an email from two virologists warning that the UK still had insufficient or no H5N1 influenza vaccine stocks, pointed out that it is essential to have clinical virologists working alongside veterinarians, advising the UK government. They made it clear, back in April 2006, that "the failure to prepare reflects a lack of understanding of viral disease in DEFRA and government and has implications for human disease risk."

Now we see that, following the preliminary epidemiologic report into the Norfolk H5N1 outbreak, both wild birds and organic farming are again back in the firing line. Although all 31 references to wild birds in the report make clear that H5N1 infection has not been detected "nor have any incidents of high mortality been observed in the area" the epidemiological report says the Norfolk strain had a 99.8% identity to the isolates from "wild birds" in June and July 2007 in the Czech Republic. However, in an email today, Alan Beat of, quotes the FAO report which says that the Czech outbreak
"started on a commercial turkey farm on 21st June holding 1800 birds. On 10th July, a single infected dead wild mute swan was found some distance away."
Although the epidemiological report mentions the single mute swan it does not mention the conclusion of the FAO investigation that the source was more likely to have been the turkey farms - i.e. not to the farms via birds but the other way round:
"the disease has spilled over from the turkey farms in the Czech Republic resulting in wild bird infections."
Yet Fred Landeg told journalists: "At the present time wild birds, most likely migratory species from central Europe, cannot be ruled out as the source of infection" The BBC's first obedient headline? "Flu cases 'linked to wild birds". It is both interesting and reassuring that this has now changed to "Bird flu cause probe inconclusive"
Even more heartening is the campaign by Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall to put pressure on the poultry industry to raise its standards. Chicken Out! is being led by River Cottage locals, especially in and around Axminster, who are boycotting intensively-reared chickens and choosing free range instead. This is a splendid initiative and people are signing up all the time.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

"an odd way to save money"

The latest way DEFRA intends to save money: a £300 million "voluntary retirement" scheme to any DEFRA employee over 50 who wants to jump ship.
There is much jostling on the decks.
As one insider, quoted by the Evening Standard comments:
"They can't believe their luck. There are retirement parties all the time stretching into next spring. It seems an odd way to save money but no one is complaining. Some intend to take the money and then work in the private sector."
£300 million is also the amount of the fine Defra was ordered to pay by the EU for its shambolic handling of the RPA

£220,000 was the sum in tenders received in October 2006 for vital repairs to Pirbright

£520 million is what the failure to make the Pirbright site secure cost the sheep industry

£3.7 billion is, according to Lord Rooker, DEFRA's overall budget

The headline chosen for the Evening Standard: "Staff offered £40,000-a-year for life 'bribes' to quit shamed ministry Defra" Interesting that only the word "bribes" appears inside inverted commas; the word "shamed" can stand naked and alone. And as the ship of shame glugs its way further and further down into the muddied waters we are left wondering what will become of those so entangled by DEFRA's controlling ropes that they are unable to take any of the actions needed to save themselves.